In an effort to keep pace with all of the movies that I am seeing here at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, I will sometimes resort to capsule reviews. Shorter yes, but no less insightful, these capsule reviews will give you a quick critical snapshot on some of the films to which I just don’t have time dedicate more than 600 words. As well, there are a lot of films about which I just don’t have a lot to say and this allows me to keep the opinions flowing all week without overlooking anything. But enough explanation, let’s take a look at three films that I had the opportunity to see over the past few days.
The Killing Room
From the director of such high concept direct-to-DVD fodder as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and Darkness Falls comes a claustrophobic thriller about a secret government experiment that tests the limits of the human psyche by putting unwitting participants in a series of life or death situations. Contained in a one room setting, The Killing Room is equal parts Cube and Saw. It features very solid performances from Timothy Hutton, Chloé Sevigny and, surprisingly, Nick Cannon as it slowly pieces together a twisted and dangerous puzzle.
While I found to be unnecessarily slow at times, the story was impressively imaginative and at times very intense. If it proves anything, it is that director Jonathan Liebersman has some serious chops when it comes to creating tension and delivering a film very distinct aesthetic. He has truly evolved beyond cheap horror prequels and lifeless thrillers. As well, the story from writers Gus Krieger and Ann Peacock is ambitious and full of emotion. It also proves that you can make a thriller in which characters are put through a lethal psychological game without turning it into another round of torture porn. That, and it has a wicked shocker of an ending. That alone makes it worth the price of admission.
The last time we saw director Alexis Dos Santos, he was bringing his unique Latin American New Wave sensibility to the existential teen angst-fest Glue, which premiered at the Toronto Film Fest in 2006. This year he has come to Park City with his latest work, Unmade Beds, a lush story of youthful awakening and intertwining fates. It follows the story of Axl, a wide-eyed Spanish teen who has come to London to find the father who abandoned him as a child. There he finds an underground squat, or communal dwelling, filled with an assortment of colorful and free spirited characters. Among them is Vera, a beautiful Belgian girl whose faith in love and destiny have recently been destroyed, then restored after a chance encounter with a charismatic stranger.
While visually interesting and pushed along by an upbeat and rhythmic soundtrack, Unmade Beds fails to connect its audience to the journeys of its central characters. It spends too much time trying to wrap us in a vibrant and capricious environment filled with fresh music, casual sexual encounters and subtle slapstick moments. It’s not a bad film by any means, just not my own personal cup of tea. This is the perfect film for film elitists to poo-poo over, engaged in debate over the mercurial nature of its characters. For me, it just didn’t click the way it should have. It is however, worth a look if you are interested in being there at the beginning of the career of a filmmaker whose future is so bright.
Everyone knows a “Big Fan.” We’ve all met that one person, usually a dude, that takes their sports fandom just a little too far. And if you know one of these people, you are also probably aware that their fandom usually hinders the functionality of the rest of their life. They live in their mother’s basement, play fantasy sports incessantly, masturbate chronically, and so the cliché goes. It is this type of person that is the centerpiece of writer/director Robert Seigel’s film Big Fan. Patton Oswalt stars as Paul, a Staten Island parking garage attendant whose single greatest joy in life is watching his beloved New York Giants play on Sunday. But when he and his loyal best friend and fellow fan, played perfectly by Kevin Corrigan, follow their favorite player into a local club it leads to a violent incident that leaves Paul in the hospital and his fandom in jeopardy.
The easy route here — which I will be taking, by the way — is to compare Big Fan to Robert Siegel’s most recent work on The Wrestler. There are many similarities, most notably the fact that we are given a central character whose story arc is relatively flat, but interesting nonetheless. It is also an often sad story about the destructive consequences of such dedication to a sport, something that we see around us in America all the time, but that we don’t always see movies about it. The difference between this and The Wrestler though primarily lies in the ability of the director to keep us engaged in such a low concept story. The Wrestler benefited from a distinctive visual style that came from Darren Aronofsky and a deeply engaging performance from Mickey Rourke. Patton Oswalt’s performance in this film was good — so good that it continues to prove my theory about how underrated Oswalt is as an actor — but it was not enough to compensate for the flat story. As well, it is clear that Robert Siegel is stil a great writer, but has a ways to go as a director. His first feature has a certain charm, mostly thanks to the performance of its star, but it just isn’t charming enough. An earnest effort that lacks that something special.